Why Pose is the most important series on television.
If you haven’t heard of the latest creation to receive the Midas touch of Ryan Murphy, Pose is an American dramatic television series on the FX network set within the New York ball culture of the 1980’s. The series’ characters are predominantly made up of black and Latino LGBTQ gender non-conforming individuals who’ve been cast aside by society and their families. .
As Pose’s Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) puts it to wide-eyed newcomer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) in the premiere, the ballroom scene made room for a “gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else, a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.”
The Balls allowed these individuals the opportunity to be seen, be creative and thrive in the moment amongst themselves. They could form friendships, alliances and gather together in self-established ‘Houses’ and were given an opportunity to choose those with which to become ‘family’.
Pose, which recently concluded its second season and has already been signed on for a third, is immensely popular with the millennial generation. And why shouldn’t it be? The series has something for everyone.
If you are a young gay, black or Latino queer, the interest is obvious.
If you are a fashionista, the nostalgic look into fashion’s hits and misses in the 80’s and 90’s is irresistible.
If you are a member of the nightlife scene, Pose offers a rare glimpse into what life was like in the underground world of one of society’s pariahs back in the day.
And if you’re a Broadway fan, Patti LuPone’s star turn as an evil real estate matron, who can also carry a tune, is delicious. There’s even room for fans of quasi-talented cabaret comediennes such as Sandra Bernhard, making the most of her recurring role as nurse, confidant and activist.
Pose has been a slam-dunk favorite for both fans and TV critics alike. Critics have called the series, “groundbreaking”, a buzzword picked up by younger TV viewers and one that is tossed into conversation as easily as ‘gurl’, ‘fierce’, or ‘legendary’. But for all of the glitz, glamour, drama, Tea and shade, thrown in celebration of this “groundbreaking” series, when asked WHY this series is so important and “groundbreaking”, the children fall silent.
It isn’t their fault. Many of the show’s biggest fans simply aren’t old enough to remember a time when being gay or having HIV/AIDS was a big deal. As someone who is old enough to remember, however, and who lived in New York during the height of the AIDS crisis, I can tell you that Pose is indeed “groundbreaking”, for a number of reasons.
It offers, more than any television show I’ve ever seen, the most realistic depiction of what life was like back then, not only for the ball culture but for our nation. A nation with a booming economy, capitalistic excess, and a political blind eye towards an oncoming plague.
Realness is one category in which Pose has consistently scored 10’s across the board. And because of that Realness, Pose can easily be considered the most important show on television.
Pose gives us an unflinching look at how people who were pushed to the side managed to carve a space for themselves and celebrate the uniqueness for which they were previously faulted. Television has never shown the underground trans or queer ball world before, certainly not in the humane and tender way that Pose does.
For the first time in broadcast history, a series depicts realistic love stories centered around gay, black, Latin and transgendered individuals in a genuine, heart-felt and positive light, and in prime time. That Pose is able to do so, in such a big budget and cinematically sweeping way is not only a testament to how far society has come in the acceptance of the LGBTQ community but also to how pioneering this television series really is.
It’s the commitment to Realness that is an integral part of the show’s success, starting with the creative team.
What better way to convincingly portray the struggles of the Ball culture and trans community, than to have trans writers and authentic Ballroom consultants on hand, to help create this world for television? Pose has done just that with series co-writer Janet Mock. The series goes further by employing three surviving members of the Jennie Livingston documentary Paris Is Burning — Hector Xtravaganza, Skylar King and Sol Williams. These Ballroom legends not only serve as the show’s off-screen consultants, but are also on screen, behind the judges table, for every Ballroom competition. That’s realness, hon.
Pose, however, goes beyond having trans writers or Ballroom royalty day players. Pose employs the largest number of trans actors appearing regularly and in leading roles, than any other series in television history. That is the very definition of “groundbreaking.”
The first season of Pose not only offered stylized musical numbers, fabulous fashions of the 80’s, and plenty of diva fierceness, but gained praise for its tender and authentic approach to the universal struggles of finding love, discovering what makes a ‘family’, and the joy and purpose in finding and being true to yourself.
The second season jumped into the 1990’s and, as creator Ryan Murphy admits, is more important than the first.
Season Two takes us to the center of the AIDS crisis as it continued to decimate New York. In addition to being stellar entertainment, it also becomes a way for us to examine the present by taking a rather uncomfortable but necessary look at the past.
It’s necessary because the fight against AIDS is not over. Those too young to remember or those born after the AIDS crisis are painfully ignorant of an important part of queer history. A part that needs to be examined and studied to make sure that we don’t repeat it.
Recently I overheard two 20somethings in passing: “This season of Pose is so depressing,” one said.
The other replied, “I know. They call the show groundbreaking but the only ground I see breaking is at the cemetery. People are dropping like flies. I know they are trying to make a point but they’re being a bit dramatic. That nurse said she’d been to something like 400 funerals? I mean, c’mon…”
Nodding his head, the first one chimed in, “Right? No one dies that quickly. If they did, someone would have done something.”
A part of me wanted to yank those two back into the bar and explain that it was true, people DID die that quickly and no one did ANYTHING.
The atrocities shown in Pose’s second season are more fact than fiction and maybe a little too ‘real’ for some to believe. Murphy understands that a lot of the younger generation doesn’t know how devastating the AIDS epidemic was to our community.
“We have very little history. All of the men who would probably be our mentors were taken away at the prime of their life. What I’m trying to do with a lot of my work is to leave a living history and educate people,” Murphy said.
Along with education, Murphy and his team have made an admirable commitment to telling a story set in truth. Before undertaking Pose, Murphy met with members of the Ball community, not only to acknowledge their contribution to the queer community, but to enlist their help in keeping Pose as authentic as possible. Aspects of the Ball culture and vogueing have been used by Madonna, Beyonce’ and everyone in between. Until now, the pioneers of that culture have scarcely been given their due, outside of the documentary Paris is Burning.
Hiring trans-actors and other members of the Ball community help to keep things real, according to Murphy. For example, the museum heist that occurs in the series’ pilot episode is a true story. And the mummified body and modelling plot lines of Season Two are both derived from the real life stories of Dorian Corey and Tracey Africa Norman.
Murphy and his team don’t shy away from truth-telling in Season Two. If anything, it’s cranked up a notch. The second season opened with Blanca and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) taking a trip to Hart Island, a speck of land formerly used for quarantined tuberculosis victims which had become an unceremonious dumping ground for New York’s unclaimed AIDS victims. Hart Island is an unfortunate reality and is just as soulless and depressing as Murphy’s depiction.
Insisting on portraying our queer history as honestly as possible has garnered the series some of its highest accolades. Pose offers audiences of all ages and sexual orientations a poignant, yet entertaining look at the truth. The truth about ‘Houses’, about ‘vogueing’. The truth about what makes a family and the truth about AIDS. It also shows the power of speaking up for yourself and others by introducing the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP.
Pose has made an indelible mark on television and in two short years, has already become “Legendary.” With little precedent to follow, the series has forged its way into the minds and hearts of viewers of all types, proving that love will find a way. With Season Three in the works, I have no doubt that Pose will continue to be a game changer as it finds more ways to bring characters we can love and relate to, into the light, with dignity, respect and honor.